On being … a cheerleader

By Ingrid Sapona

I know Charlie (not his real name) through the local alumni club of my undergrad university. A couple years ago a handful of area alums got together in an effort to revive the moribund club. Charlie was one of the driving forces behind the resurrection.

He and his wife Sandra (not her real name) are both alums, as are two of their three daughters. I don’t think Charlie or Sandra are particularly major benefactors of the university but they certainly support it by proudly promoting it at every opportunity. Charlie and Sandra attend most local alumni events, usually sporting something that includes the school’s colours, and I get the sense they also make it back to the campus pretty regularly for various events.

Charlie is an equal opportunity supporter of the university, keeping us up-to-date on both academic and athletic goings on. But, since both he and one of his daughters are j-school grads, I think he feels a special affinity toward the j-school and its alums, so I get a few more e-mails from him than some other alumni do. For example, he often relates news about j-school faculty and alums, as well as stuff about the state of the news business in general.  

Before you get the wrong impression, let me clarify that it’s not like I get daily, or even weekly, e-mails from Charlie. It’s not a case where he’s got time on his hands and nothing better to do than troll for news about our alma mater. His e-mails are occasional and always welcome.

So, when I opened an e-mail from him earlier this week and I saw it was addressed to j-school alums, I was surprised when the first sentence was about a film that will be premiering next week at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF, as it’s known around here). While I wasn’t surprised that Charlie and Sandra might be planning on attending some of the 288 films on offer this year, I couldn’t imagine why he’d single out a specific film to mention to us.

Well, by now I’m sure you guessed it has a j-school connection. Turns out the film was co-written and co-produced by Lina (not her real name), a 2001 j-school grad. Cool, I thought – and very Charlie-like to have found that out. That tidbit is not in the TIFF description – apparently he recognized her name from one of the articles in the most recent alumni magazine, which I hadn’t even read yet!

Charlie went on to say that he planned on e-mailing Lina to “see what her plans are” while she’s in town for the world premiere of her movie and he intended to ask her if she’d like to come to our alumni club’s annual general meeting, which happens to be scheduled about the time he thought she’d be in town. I had to laugh at the thought. Yes, in the e-mail he noted that he realized Lina’s main objective while here would be to find a distributor for the film, I still couldn’t believe he thought he’d even be able to reach her.

No sooner did I finish reading that e-mail than a second one from Charlie came through. This one was labelled “follow-up”. To my amazement, he wrote that he received a response from Lina and that she suggested that Toronto j-school alums could come to the premier screening and be her guest at the film’s private after party. I couldn’t believe it.

A day or so later he e-mailed again with further details, asking us to confirm our attendance. He also mentioned that Lina “seems very excited about the chance to meet (j-school) alums in Toronto”, and he commented on how generous he thought the offer was. While I definitely agreed with what he said about the generosity of Lina’s invitation, I thought it might be a bit of a stretch to say she’s excited about meeting us. But, true or not, that positive representation of Lina’s response seemed pure Charlie.

I’m really looking forward to the film and I’ve told a couple friends about it. Every time I relay the story and think about how it unfolded, my respect and admiration for Charlie grows. The whole thing came about because of his genuine interest in all things related to our alma mater and his kindness toward fellow alums. His going out of his way to try to contact Lina seemed strange to me at first. But now I see it for what it was: a lovely gesture of recognition of her accomplishment of making it into TIFF. And his inviting her to our alumni club’s meeting was also very thoughtful, as he figured fellow alums might be interested in hearing about her work.

Charlie was at the university 20 years before me, so I don’t know whether he was ever on the university’s official cheerleading squad. But I tell you, I’ve never met a person who better embodies what a good cheerleader is all about: inspiring folks with their enthusiasm and energy. I feel very fortunate to be associated with a “team” Charlie cheers for. (I am sure there are other “teams” he’s also an enthusiastic supporter of.) And, though I know I need lots more practice, I truly hope that someday I’ll be at least half as genuine a cheerleader as Charlie – for our alma mater and for others too.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a meaningful measure

By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t know about you, but sometimes the most unexpected things set my mind wandering toward discouraging thoughts. I guess what makes me even more frustrated is that even when I realize the cause for my discombobulated emotional state, I can’t always stop the thoughts from nagging at me.

By now I’m sure you’ve guessed that something triggered just such a jag last week. It was a New York Times article a friend sent me about a law school classmate of ours (I’ll call him Horace). Apparently Horace founded a company that specializes in taking on certain kinds of cases. Objectively speaking, the article was as much about the relatively new area of law Horace specializes in, as it was about him.

Whether the article painted a flattering picture of Horace is open to interpretation and, to be honest, after I read it I couldn’t decide. The article included background information about him and how he realized that this was a niche that could be quite lucrative. It talks about him being “focused to the point of being obsessive” and about the different tactics he employs in the course of his work. Oh, and it mentions he earns about $25 million a year.

The 3300+ word article provided more than the normal food for thought, not to mention fodder for the emotional cannon that exploded in my head. Sure, jealousy is clearly at play, as I’m fairly sure I won’t make $25 million in my lifetime, let alone in one year. But that wasn’t the only emotion that tripped me up. Frankly, it was bigger than that. It was a feeling of being wholly inadequate by comparison to my classmate. How could it be that we have basically the same education, which to my mind means we both had the same opportunities, and yet he seems to have a lot more to show for it? 

I told a friend about the turmoil the article stirred in me and about my feelings of inadequacy by comparison to Horace’s obvious success. This led to a discussion of the common propensity to measure success based on money. Forbes’ annual ranking of billionaires and all the media coverage that list gets every year is proof that money is one of the standard measures of success in our society.

But, as my friend pointed out, the question I should ask myself is whether money has ever been a motivating force or central focus for me. The truth is, it hasn’t been. I’ve been more motivated to find ways of expressing myself creatively and to find an audience for my writing. Sure, I’ve always hoped that money will flow from my efforts, but it’s not been how I’ve measured whether I’m successful at expressing myself.

Once my friend helped me realize that, I went back and re-read the article to see what else might have contributed to the reaction I felt. There were a number of details about Horace’s life that were objective signs of success – a spouse and child, a multi-million dollar home, a car collection, and impressionist paintings. But again, if I’m honest with myself, none of these are things I’ve striven for or necessarily wanted. (Ok, the impressionist paintings, maybe.) 

After I finished re-reading the article, I thought about whether there’s anything that could be said in a New York Times article about my career that might make any of my classmates feel they don’t measure up by comparison. I’m quite sure the answer to that is no. But, once I thought about it in those terms, I realized a fundamental truth that had escaped me as I was reading about Horace and his life.

What I lost sight of is the fact that there are many ways you can evaluate your success. Maybe the reason society tends to measure success by things like money, hours worked, cases won, meals served, patients seen, and so on, is because they are quantifiable and therefore they lend themselves to comparison. I think what really matters is not how your life measures up against others’ – it’s how it stacks up against your own dreams and goals, neither of which are necessarily quantifiable or objectively evaluated. In other words, just because your accomplishments aren’t the kind that might make for interesting reading in the New York Times, it doesn’t mean you don’t measure up. 

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona